Sometime around the 5th century BC, a messenger ran 26 miles from the town of Marathon to the town of Athens to announce a Greek victory over the Persians. As soon as he had shared his good news, he died. And a new workout was born.
We humans are always coming up with new ways to get what we want. Aside from, let’s say, money and love, what everybody seems to want most is health and beauty. In this era of long work hours and many commitments, we want these things as quickly and easily as possible. So let’s take a look at some of recent workout regimens and the goals they are trying to achieve. And let’s ask ourselves: passing fad or enduring classic?
In the latter half of the 20th Century, world-class distance runners took a cue from the ancients and started running barefoot. Some of them won Olympic games and other high-profile contests, and the craze was on. The argument in favor of barefoot running is that repetitive stress injuries can result from pounding on footwear, and some research supports the notion.1 Of course, a sharp rock or piece of glass could do some damage, too. Other research shows that running with shoes, which makes the heel strikes the ground first, is better than barefoot running, which causes the forefoot to land first.
Enterprising footwear makers have, of course, come up with their own solutions based on the idea of running barefoot. Many of these "shoes" are made with extremely thin material that is intended to protect from environmental injury but preclude the problem of repetitive stress injuries by molding to your foot. Purists, of course, insist only barefoot will do. So what do you think? Fad or re-discovered ancient classic?
Gas Mask Training
When high performance endurance athletes train, many of them like to go to high altitudes. The thin air challenges and builds lung muscles, so when they are running at lower elevations, the extra oxygen feels downright luxurious. For those who can’t whisk themselves away to the high elevations of Denver or the Himalayas, gas mask training has become a thing. The idea is that gas masks hinder the flow of oxygen, which is supposed to mimic elevation training. Maybe it also helps build neck muscles and, when worn on the street, can scare small children out of your path...?
Do you have a few hours and a couple hundred bucks a month? You could join a CrossFit gym. CrossFit training has become immensely popular. It’s sort of the perfect combination: very little time investment for quick muscle building and a committed community to boot. CrossFitters gather in a group for very short and intense bursts of cardiovascular and weight training. And by short, we mean 10-, 15-, 20-minute workouts. Muscle has been shown to build quickly this way, but participants don’t seem to lose much weight.
According to some experts, the dangers of CrossFit are twofold. First, most Americans need to focus on sustainably losing weight rather than building muscle mass. Second, CrossFit may have a bit of cultural problem. The highly intense but quick workouts seem to give participants an adrenaline rush that pushes them to increase the weight they’re trying to lift before they’re ready, which can lead to serious injury. The CrossFit culture has also come under fire for being too, well, rabid, which lends itself to people not listening to their limits and pushing themselves to the point of harm.
One would think calling a workout “Insanity” might be a little insane, but it’s worked. Started by a trainer named Shaun T, the Insanity workout is gaining new practitioners every day. Men’s Health even included it in their “New Year, New You” series.2 The basic idea is similar to CrossFit: very short bursts of intense energy and once-a-day workout sessions that last no more than 30 minutes. The idea is to push your body to its max for 60-120 seconds, then rest and let your lungs replenish, then do it again. The idea is also, of course, to sell workout DVDs priced at $120. This workout is not for those with cardiovascular or joint problems or people who are not in good shape to begin with. So? Is Insanity insane or just crazy good?
Do you like running on a treadmill or biking on a stationary bike? How about Zumba or yoga? Now, do you like being in the water? If so, why not just do your favorite gym workout in the pool? Increasingly, gyms with pools are dropping some simple equipment into the pool for water workouts. Proponents say these workouts are much easier on the joints and more enjoyable. The resistance of the water may also help build muscle. As strange as a stationary cycle looks submerged in a pool of water, no one seems to be talking about any problems with these workouts, which we'll take as a good sign.
Does the treadmill or jogging bore you? Well, there’s a solution, and it’s called a fun run. Fun runs are typically done in groups and often involve obstacles such as mud pits, rope courses, etc. The idea is that if you have a new challenge or a new surface to run on, you’ll do it longer, you'll do it with more vigor, and you’ll actually enjoy doing it. Endless variants of the fun run exist, including zombie runs, runs featuring blaring music, runs in which you dodge flying objects, and even fun runs with inflatable obstacles similar to bounce houses.
The problem with the Greek messenger in the Marathon story is that he ran beyond his capabilities, motivated by excitement. While excitement as a spur to work out is wonderful, so is a sober evaluation of what your body can handle, what it needs most, and what could go wrong. If you think about those three things before working out, then go with whatever floats your boat and gets your ticker ticking. Just remember the first rule of working out: Do no harm. Aaaaand the second rule: Have fun.
- Reader A. Two rules for beginning barefoot running (and avoiding injury). Breaking Muscle. November 2014. Accessed February 13, 2015.
- Thieme T. The new insanity workout. Men’s Health. January 1, 2015. Accessed January 13, 2015.
- Fetters KA. Best and worst health trends of 2013. Health.com. Accessed January 13, 2015.